UK scientist helped create glowing dog

ctruman@herald-leader.comDecember 26, 2009 

  • What's a Ruppy?

    Name: Amalgam of "ruby" and "puppy."

    Species: Beagle infused with a sea anemone gene that makes it slightly fluorescent.

    Why the fuss? Researchers say the genetically modified glowing dog is an advance in adding genetic material to mammals, making them "transgenic." The dogs, researchers say, are more useful and long-lived than laboratory mice.

Ruppy, a genetically engineered beagle that glows, lives in Korea, but he's creating a stir at the University of Kentucky.

The fluorescent canine, infused with a gene from a sea anemone and known as the world's first transgenic dog, isn't really a single animal.

Initially there were three "Ruppy" puppies — short for ruby puppy, not a tip of the hat to the legendary UK basketball coach or the arena — all beagles, part of a project that UK fertility researcher Chemyong Jay Ko was involved with at Seoul University in South Korea. Now, Ko says, there are several groups of cloned Ruppys — maybe 30.

Ko is emphatic that the latter-day Ruppys not be called offspring or siblings or even the next generation of transgenic puppyhood: They're clones, he says, and clones do not follow the standard order of beagle family trees.

The initial trio were all named Ruppy, lived in South Korea and, according to Ko, were treated well. If you lived in South Korea, you could try to get one: They have so many Ruppys there, Ko says, they're looking for homes for them.

Ko's 11-year-old son wants a Ruppy. But there are no plans to bring a Ruppy to Kentucky, and no plans to study him at UK. For now, the Ruppy clan lives in Seoul and is, Ko says, treated well in research facilities there.

Even in broad daylight, this is a dog of a different color: You can see it in the red flush of the pads on the bottoms of his feet.

Why a red flush? Because researchers needed a trait that would be visible immediately. A color change in a puppy does just that.

Therein lies the problem. Ruppy is almost too cute to be thought of as a research subject.

There are two ways of looking at this: You can think, as Ko does, that the development of a glowing beagle is a step forward in genetic science that points the way to all manner of advances — from commercial development of dogs bred with specific traits, such as green eyes, or developing a gene that could address a specific disease, to changes in the way researchers collect blood for research.

Ko points out that he spends a lot of money on lab mice: between $10,000 and $15,000 a month; there's a color wheel of mice selections in the laboratory where he works, rather like an Amazon.com for research mice. He says that dogs have a lot more blood than a lab mouse. Further, he says that lab technology has evolved to allow for a nearly painless withdrawal of blood.

The other way to look at the moral implications of Ruppy raises questions about whether there's a difference between exhausting a supply of lab mice and keeping dogs for experiments.

Where in the mammalian line the difference comes, where humans start to look at animals as companions and defend their welfare rather than writing them off as commodities is difficult to say. But the idea of tinkering with dogs strikes some as far more awful than making Glo Fish, which are available at many pet stores. The genetically altered fish are available in "Starfire Red," "Electric Green," and "Sunburst Orange," although sale of the designer fish has been banned in California.

Ko, who came to UK as a post-doctoral student in 1998, says he spends several weeks a year in Korea working with the research team that developed Ruppy. In 2005, Snuppy, a cloned Afghan hound, was introduced. Ko then contacted the researchers and became involved in the research that resulted in Ruppy.

He professes some amazement in dealing with the aftermath of the announcement of Ruppy's existence. Network news has been in touch. Animal-rights activists are posting on The New York Times Web site, where Ruppy made the Times magazine's list of the top ideas of 2009, and the Ruppy project has been kicked around on various blogs.

"You can make thousands of kinds of transgenic animals," Ko says.

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood imagined what form transgenic animals would take in her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, which introduced the reader to fictitious animals such as "wolvogs" (hybrids between wolves and dogs), "rakunks" (raccoon and skunk), and "pigoons" (pigs and baboons, for organ transplants).

Sara Rosenthal, director of the UK Program for Bioethics, says that humans tend to assign greater moral worth to larger animals and those who resemble us. Nonetheless, she notes, even primates such as chimpanzees are used in research because such research spares human suffering; to humans, and in research circles, that is the most unsettling research.

"We use animals because we find that animals are in service to reduce the number of humans" that have to be used for medical advances, Rosenthal says. "The ethical justification for using animals in research has to be very strong."

Some medical advances, such as the discovery of insulin in 1921, would not have been possible without using dogs in research, Rosenthal said.

Ko says that developing a transgenic dog is much more difficult than cloning other animals: First, there's retrieving the eggs. Pinpointing when a female dog ovulates is not as easy as targeting when a human ovulates and then harvesting the eggs. Then there's the problem of targeting on a microscopic level an opaque cell nucleus.

But with all species, he notes, collection of sperm is less challenging.

"Sperm is easy," he says. "In every species, sperm is easy."

Reach Cheryl Truman at (859) 231-3202.

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